Singer-actress Kathy Brier talks to Atlantic City Weekly about her portrayal of the legendary singer, who got her start in Atlantic City, on the hit HBO series.
Kathy Brier portrayed Sophie Tucker on the first season of HBO's award-winning original series Boardwalk Empire, appearing on screen in a few episodes and singing three songs on the official soundtrack for the show, which is up for a GRAMMY nomination this year.
In an exclusive interview with Atlantic City Weekly, Brier reveals the work that went into portraying her character, her experience so far being a part of the critically-acclaimed hit television show, and what's ahead for her.
What was the initial process of auditioning for this role like and how much time did you have to prepare?
The audition process was swift and a whirlwind. I think the first time I had a day to prepare the music [for the audition]. I mean, I knew who Sophie Tucker was, but I didn't understand the scope of her reach in terms of entertainment. So when I got the audition it was like a cram session. I knew that they wanted her to kind of be as close historically to her as possible in terms of her sound and everything so I got the audition one day and [was] called back in the next. Then I recorded "Some of These Days" and "Don't Put a Tax on the Beautiful Girls" the day after that. So it was like in a span of two-and-a-half days that I had to perfect those two songs.
The last song I sang [in May 2011, while she was pregnant] "After You Get What You Want (You Don't Want It)," I didn't have much time before recording it either. Actually, it was originally supposed to be sung by three chorus girls and I guess for whatever reason [the producers] decided that it wasn't working out ... so they called and were like, 'Can you come in tomorrow and do this?' And I was like, 'OK!'
Although you don't appear on screen in season two, the song "After You Get What You Want" appears on the GRAMMY-nominated soundtrack.
When they called they were like, 'You know, you're not on camera [for the song], is that OK?' And I said absolutely. I love the show and the music and I just love singing with the band. When we did "After You Get What You Want," the music had been previously recorded so I had to work within the confines of what they had recorded for the [chorus girls]. When I recorded the first two songs I got to record with the band, which I prefer — in the same room, we did it live. Coming from a musical theater background, I prefer to sing live because there's just this synergy when you have a band playing behind you. I pick up on things that maybe the cellist is playing or the trombonist. I may hear something and it inspires me and vice versa. Like I would sing something and I could hear a certain instrument try to mimic me, like an improv based on what I did vocally.
What was your experience like working with the band and its bandleader, Grammy-nominated musician Vince Giordano?
I find Vince fascinating. When I came in he was just so sweet and he just became an instant fan of mine and I became an instant fan of his. It's a gift. That's the way I look at working on Boardwalk Empire, whether I'm on screen or off screen, it doesn't matter to me, just to be a part of the show and the time period and to sing with a 12-piece orchestra and to work with a company that really cares and has a high standard for the product that they're putting out. And as an actor and a singer that's a joy because, believe it or not, it doesn't happen that often!
Did you know much about Sophie Tucker before being cast to play her?
I knew who Sophie Tucker was, but I didn't really understand — I mean, there's nobody to compare her to today. The only person you kind of could I think would be Bette Midler, but there is no one like her and there hasn't been for a long time. She was actually famous for 60 years and that's very uncommon. And I found that interesting also because she was a character woman and usually character women don't have that kind of reach. They have long careers maybe, but they don't have that reach of like, for example, a Beyoncé of her day. She was that big of a star.
How did you prepare for the role?
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"Eddie lived in a kind of musically optimistic 1920s place even though he had a shitty childhood. His parents died when he was young but his grandmother raised him and he was little and scrawny so he got beaten up a lot. He learned to make jokes so he could avoid getting beaten up, so from then on he realized this singing and dancing thing could work."
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"We wanted to do it as if it was a behind-the-scenes video of the first rap video ever made [in the 1920s]. But we had trouble getting some of the props we needed for that, like a period movie camera — you know, that would have been our whole budget, just getting that camera."
“So she sings it the way Sophie Tucker would have sang it? That’s good. It was the most unusual style [of singing] that she had. She had a staggered style of singing."
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Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, treasurer of Atlantic County, ruled the rackets and the Republican Party in Atlantic City. Former cabbie Louie Kessel ordered his master’s life. Home base was the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel at Iowa Avenue and the Boardwalk (near today’s Tropicana).
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“It’s been my love and passion ever since I was five years old and I think this music moves people. People who come to see us, they say, ‘When I got here I was in kind of a blah mood, not so good, or depressed, or whatever and I come out in just a whole different place. I’m laughing, my spirits are lifted, it’s cheaper than going to a psychiatrist!’”
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